All hail uncreative chapter titles. But this is my first fanfic for this section, so I'm going to cut myself a little slack on that. If anyone can come up with a better title, though, I'd appreciate your input. Standard disclaimers apply. Reviews and concrit are appreciated.
Ken isn't really all that fond of chess.
He thinks he used to be, once. But all of his "used to be's" seem to come back to the same person and the same, vague, half remembered Saturdays in the days before... Well. In the days before. Now, whenever he plays it's mostly for the sake of nostalgia, or as a means to distract himself from those memories.
It's kind of ironic really, playing chess to forget about Sam.
Still, in this situation, he's making an exception. She had sounded really eager about wanting to learn and...
'Check! At least I think that's check.'
She's the holder of the Crest of Light. She's kind, and gentle, and patient, and when she stands in front of the Dark Ocean, she shines the way nothing should ever be able to shine there... Ken remembers...
She's also an evil chess opponent. '...Yes, Kari, that's definitely a check.'
'Oh, good. I guess I'm getting the hang of this, huh?'
...Getting the hang of it. Right. This morning she barely knew how to play the game and now she's apparently mastered it. She's not as good as he is, but frankly, the speed at which she's picked it up is impressive. 'I'd say you've picked up the basics. Your move.'
'Okay... check. Again.'
Bishop. Right into the path of his queen. It's an amateur mistake. She's the strongest piece on the board and yet people always forget she's there. He always used to forget too, whenever he and Sam played.
He moves a pawn.
'Hm...' he looks up at the sound of her voice. Kari is looking at him. Her face is firm and serious and not at all reproachful, but... '...What?'
'You're letting me win, aren't you?'
Busted. Ken moves the white queen to B6, pushing one of her pawns off the board. 'Why would you say that?'
Kari sighs, making a whistling noise through her teeth as she does. He only notices because it's the same sound Gatomon makes when she's sleeping, which is kind of funny. He wonders whether or not he ever reacts or makes the same kind of noises as Wormmon does. Whether Armadillomon sometimes takes on Cody's serious, thoughtful brow crease. Whether Davis refuses to stand still for five seconds like Veemon. ..
...Actually, that last one's kind of obvious.
'Because you're Ken Ichijoji, that's why.' Kari moves a pawn – sloppily, she's leaving herself right open. 'You get test scores I can't even dream about. You tutor math. If I'm noticing and anticipating your moves then you're either completely distracted or you're letting me win. Or both. Which is it?'
Ken stares at the board for a second longer, working out exactly what she's planning to do with that Bishop over there – if she's planning anything at all. She probably isn't. Planning isn't Kari's strong point. Like most of them, she prefers to make things up on the fly.
He moves his bishop, and doesn't answer her question. 'Your move.'
She moves a Knight, and instead of sweeping his bishop from the board the way most players do, she merely taps it gently with the bottom of her own piece, picks it up and carefully places it in a row next to the pawn and the knight. 'You didn't answer my question. You don't have to go easy on me, you know.'
He knows he doesn't. Kari never expects anyone to go easy on her. He knew that way back when he was the Kaiser. There was something altogether disturbing about a girl who could step through the boundary between worlds as easily as he did, for exactly the opposite reasons.
Really, it shouldn't be surprising that she's good at chess. Kari's smarter than anyone gives her credit for. In fact, he's pretty sure she chose the black pieces just to be contrary.
'Most people lose their first game,' he says. 'It's... disheartening.'
'So you think I'll quit if I don't win?' Now she looks reproachful.
'I didn't mean that,' Ken sighs, paying far too much attention to her last remaining knight. 'It's not about winning. It's about getting a feel for the game. Working out what works and what doesn't.' Having fun, he doesn't say.
'So? Let me lose, silly. It's just a game, right?'
Ken smiles faintly, moving a bishop. 'That's what my brother always used to say. I could never beat him when I was a kid either. The only person I could ever beat was myself.'
Kari blinks at him, smiling in amusement. 'Yourself?'
'Yeah. Hey, lots of people play chess against themselves. It's challenging.' He moves another piece.
'Your brother was really smart, wasn't he? As smart as you are?' And that's another thing about Kari. She understands people and emotions. She sympathises with even the most mediocre of pains, and you can feel that sympathy as strongly as you could a firm hand against your shoulder. But she doesn't have to say so. Or at least, she never has with him.
It's almost impossible not to be comfortable around her. Provided you don't have something to feel guilty about that is. And Ken always had something to feel guilty about.
'Smart is the mild word for it. I don't think anybody ever beat him. It was kind of frustrating trying to all the time.'
'Then why did you play?' Kari asks, seeming genuinely confused.
There's an almost understanding between them that Ken supposes comes from experience. For all their differences he and Kari are connected. They've both seen the darkness at its deepest. They know neither has to go easy on the other's feelings. Most people hop around the subject of his brother –on the rare occasions when it actually comes up– like they're bouncing around a hot plate. Kari doesn't.
...He never stopped wanting to play against Sam. But it hadn't been because he liked the game. 'I wanted to stop losing,' he says eventually. 'I wanted to beat him, even if it took forever.'
'And did you?'
'Once or twice,' Ken's lips quirk into a wider smile. 'When he let me.'
Kari laughs and the sound makes Gatomon's ears twitch where she's curled up snoozing on the bed. 'You really loved him.'
The words make something clench inside of him –which is a normal reaction that he's come to associate with Sam. Even with all the time he's had to get used to the fact that his older brother won't ever be coming home, that's still the one feeling that's never really gone away. 'Sometimes I didn't... sometimes I hated him.'
'That's a brother thing,' Kari smirks, and he knows she's talking from experience. 'There were days when I wanted to smack Tai about the head with something. And days when I actually did.'
'Really?' he blinks in surprise because really... it's hard to picture Kari raising a hand to anyone or anything for any reason at all. Except for that one time she told him about in the Dark Ocean and...
'Sure I did. All brothers and sisters fight, Ken. Especially about stupid things like chess and birthday presents and whose turn it is to take out the trash. It's perfectly normal.'
He thinks about his brother yelling and glaring at a computer screen. Of hours upon hours spent listening outside of Sam's bedroom door trying to work out what the heck was happening. Of his parents' quiet, anxious conversations before and after Sam disappeared. Ken isn't certain whether he and Sam had ever qualified as Normal. But then, they're Digidestined, so it doesn't really come into their vocabulary anyway. In some way or another they're all messed up, and probably always will be. 'I... don't think we ever argued about the trash. Actually I don't think we argued about anything. Not until... well... you know.'
She does know: it shows in her expression. Her hand hovers over the board as if contemplating a move he predicted her making several minutes ago. 'Now that's strange. I figured all brothers and sisters fought. That's just the way they are.'
'...Well, maybe chess was our way of fighting, then,' Ken says.
'You didn't just play for fun?'
It only now strikes him how peculiar that must sound, especially to someone like her. Kari sighs, leaning back against her chair. 'I'm not sure there's much sense in a game where you don't have any fun. What's the point in playing?'
'To win,' Ken looks at her as if that answer's obvious. He knows it isn't good enough, but it's the only one he can give and... Well. It's the truth. It's why he used to play. Why he doesn't enjoy playing anymore because now he always wins easily, and he's starting to see just why winning was never really the point. 'Well... it seemed really important back then. Even if it was just a game. I figured if I could just beat him once then it might start being more enjoyable. And then when he actually let me win, I got annoyed.'
Kari gazes at him for a long moment, searching for and re-finding the understanding that had been lost in the confusion of the moment. Then she smiles. 'You wanted to win by yourself. Just like me, see. Losing is one thing, but winning because someone else was going easy on you... That's more disheartening than losing really, isn't it?'
'I don't ever want to win something just because someone else felt sorry for me. That used to happen sometimes, when I was little,' there's a slight frown on her face now. 'Going to the digital world the first time around changed everything, Ken. It changed who I was... How other people saw me. When I was a little girl, people were always so gentle; I think they thought that I was gonna break or something if they were too rough. I was always the slowest in sports, so my friends used to slow down to keep up with me. It's not that I wasn't glad that they did that...' she keeps frowning, more intently now, the chess piece in her hand forgotten. She chuckles. 'It's kind of hard, huh? Being the one who has something wrong with them.'
'There's nothing wrong with you,' Ken says, and he's just a little surprised by how quickly and sharply he said it. By how eager he is to defend who and what she is.
Kari places down the chess piece. 'Thank you. But everyone has something wrong with them, Ken. Some of us more than others. But those things are a part of us too, right? Even the parts of us we don't necessarily like. The weak parts. The angry parts that sometimes hate their brothers and are afraid of losing at chess. What's important is how we react to those parts of us. The dark and the light, you know?'
...Like the parts that think winning is more important than what you do to the people left bleeding in your wake.
She doesn't mention the Dark Ocean. There's nothing there to say she's even thinking about it, but Ken knows she is. She knows. They were both there. And for them both to be there, there had to be some darkness deep inside.
'It works both ways you know,' Kari goes on as she moves another piece, and if he didn't know better Ken would say she's reading his mind. Maybe she half is. 'The shadows show up the good parts of you all the better. You're a lot more like your brother then you realise,' she smiles at him broadly. 'Because you want to let me win.'
'...Oh.' Okay, so he hadn't really thought of that, but he's seeing it now –seeing it in all the choices he made after the Kaiser vanished, and in the memories he'd tried to forget and all of a sudden it's making a lot of sense why Yolei thought that kid in the photograph was Ken and not his brother.
Winning isn't everything. Being right and good and just all the time isn't everything. Trying is.
Dark and light. White chess pieces and black ones. His brother had had darkness inside of him too, maybe a darkness just as cold and bitter as Ken's was. The metaphor is simple enough, even for somebody who thinks in figures. The brighter the lights are then the deeper the darkness, so really, it's no wonder that Kari had been dragged into the ocean so easily. Dark and light were both pulled in the same direction eventually.
And you might be surprised by just how good you could be. 'And you don't want me to let you win, right?'
'...Which means this game is officially null and void.'
Kari looks down at the board thoughtfully. Then she reaches out and carefully turns her king on its side. 'Hm. You're right. And it's kind of boring anyway. Just say "Checkmate" and we'll go see what kind of mess Davis is getting himself into this morning.'